Navigating stress and burnout in Operational Research

By SuperEditor Apr16,2024
Frustrated young man massaging his nose and keeping eyes closed while sitting at his working place in office

April is Stress Awareness month, an annual event organised by the non-profit organisation Stress Management Society to increase public awareness about stress, often seen as a modern-day epidemic.  In this article we explore the rise of stress in the workplace and offer tips for how organisations can support staff dealing with stress and burnout.

A global report[i] last year suggested that stress and burnout are the greatest risk facing organisations in 2024. The Workforce Resilience Council’s international SOS’ latest annual risk outlook highlighted that 80% of senior risk professionals predict that burnout will have a significant impact on employees this year.

In January, the chief executive of the charity, Mental Health UK, Brian Dow warned the UK risks becoming a “burnt-out nation” with a “worrying number of people” taking time off due to poor mental health caused by stress[ii].

 

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)[iii] , 1.8 million workers suffered from work-related ill health in 2022/23, with about half of the cases down to stress, depression or anxiety. What’s more, stress comes at a major cost for businesses –  a report by Deloitte[iv] in 2021 estimated the annual cost of poor mental health to UK employers has increased by 25% since 2019, up to £56 billion per year.

 

Stress levels in Operational Research

Stress can place immense demands on employees’ physical and mental health and affect their behaviour, performance and relationships with colleagues and, in the field of operational research, professionals have the propensity to suffer stress.  In Operational Research, people are working at a high academic level solving complex issues.  The demands of modelling, optimisation, and simulation, combined with the need to stay abreast of industry advancements, can create an intense work environment. Tight deadlines, high expectations, and the responsibility of providing actionable insights for real-world challenges contribute to the pressure cooker that OR professionals often find themselves in.

Additionally, the nature of the job, which involves intricate mathematical work and addressing multifaceted problems, can lead to mental fatigue and exhaustion over time. Burnout not only affects individuals but can also hamper overall team dynamics and the quality of output. Therefore, organisations need to ensure they have robust strategies and processes in place to mitigate the risks of stress and burnout.

 

Navigating stress and burnout in the OR world

 Stress is something most people feel at one time or another when dealing with the challenges of life. The NHS[v] highlights that during periods of stress the body releases a hormone called adrenaline (often called the “fight or flight” hormone), which usually gives people a boost or motivates them to act quickly. While sometimes this can enhance a person’s performance, it can be damaging if stressful periods become the normality.

 

What are the signs of stress to look out for? 

 The HSE[vi] highlights that if employees acting differently, it can indicate they are stressed. The signs for managers to look for in teams include arguments at work; higher staff turnover; more sickness absence; decreased performance and more complaints and grievances. Other signs are a change in how someone thinks or feels such as mood swings; being withdrawn; loss of motivation, commitment and confidence; and increased emotional reactions such as being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.

 

Emma Capper, UK Wellbeing Leader at employee benefits firm, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing said, “The key is being able to spot these signs and put the right interventions in place early is essential to preventing issues from escalating. Most jobs involve some level of stress, but when the impacts are compounded by lack of support and resources, tight deadlines and long hours, burnout can be the result.”

 

Tips for managing stress and burnout in the workplace:

 Howden has put together a free guide for tackling employee stress and burnout, which organisations can download by visiting: www.howdengroup.com/uk-en/employee-burnout. Here are some of the top actions they suggest:

 

  1. Invest in line manager training– managers are the first line of defence and training them to spot the early signs of stress is imperative.
  2. Speak to the affected employee – find out more about the reasons behind stress and burnout. It could be related to the workplace (volumes, pressures, and prioritisation), home life (having young children or caring for an elderly relative) or something else. A good understanding of the issues means that line managers, HR or employers can help.
  3. Train mental health first aiders– these are dedicated people within the organisation who employees can go to for practical support and advice.
  4. Introduce Wellbeing Action Plans– when a mental health condition is identified set up a plan. This tool allows line managers to help employees – and employees to help themselves.
  5. Offer flexible working – Making reasonable adjustments at work for an employee suffering with their mental health is important and employees have a legal right to ask for changes to be made to their job or workplace. Hybrid, part-time, flexi-time or condensed hours may support a better work-life balance.
  6. Use free resources– there is a wealth of information readily available. For example, the mental health charity, Mind has free resources which can be shared with managers and employees, including guidance for managers on how to support staff experiencing a mental health problem.
  7. Mind and body sessions– introduce sessions on mindfulness, massages or stress management techniques, plus encourage exercise which is a great stress reliever. Discounted gym membership or suggesting activities such as lunchtime walks or company-wide fitness challenges to support teamwork and collaboration are a great idea. Line Managers could also adopt walking 1-2-1s as a way of supporting physical activity whilst checking in with employees.
  8. Check and promote what’s already available– Critical Illness, Private Medical and Group Income Protection policies often offer a range of services that provide mental health support for employees when they need it most. Most also offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) which are designed to support the physical, mental and financial wellbeing of employees, that include telephone and often face-to-face counselling.

 

In embracing Stress Awareness Month, organisations can take proactive steps towards fostering healthier work environments. By initiating conversations, implementing supportive measures, and utilising available resources, companies can pave the way for enhanced well-being and productivity. Let’s turn Stress Awareness Month into a catalyst for meaningful change in how we address stress and burnout in the workplace.

For more information on Stress Awareness Month, visit: www.stress.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-month.

References

[i] https://www.strategic-risk-global.com/people-risk/burnout-is-the-greatest-risk-facing-organisations-in-2024-how-to-tackle-it/

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2024/jan/22/mental-health-uk-burnt-out-nation#:~:text=Mental%20Health%20UK’s%20chief%20executive,are%20complex%2C%E2%80%9D%20he%20added.

[iii] https://press.hse.gov.uk/2023/11/22/hse-publishes-annual-work-related-ill-health-and-injury-statistics-for-2022-23/

[iv] https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/consulting/articles/mental-health-and-employers-the-case-for-investment.html

[v] https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/

[vi] https://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/signs.htm

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